Old ideas of a ‘proper job’ hold back SA’s potential
Iam often reminded of an apocryphal tale about the golfer Ernie Els’s grandmother, after he won the 1994 US Open at just 24 years of age. Asked by a journalist how his family felt about the historic win, he responded with characteristic candour: “They are obviously all very proud of me, but my gran keeps asking when I’m going to get a proper job!”
As senior representatives of business, labour and the government met at the jobs summit last week to “develop practical initiatives to create employment for millions of South Africans”, I couldn’t help feeling that they — like Ernie’s dear grandmother — had missed the point.
If you have missed it, SA has a long and spectacularly bad history when it comes to job creation initiatives. We’re never going to create the 13-million jobs by 2030 as promised by the National Development Plan when we can’t even stop the economy from shedding the few jobs we already have.
The problem is that there is a rapidly widening gulf between what is happening in the real world of employment and the sort of policies and practical employment interventions that keep being offered up by business and the government.
This is not unique to SA: globalisation, digitalisation, and technology have all fundamentally changed the way people are employed, but in SA, where more than a third of the working population is without work, the problem is particularly acute.
One of the biggest hindrances is that those concerned don’t even really seem to know what a job is, let alone how to create one. Politicians in particular bandy about terms such as “full-time equivalent”, “job years”, and “employment opportunities”, but these are largely meaningless to the average South African.
It matters a great deal if you work down a mine shaft for 12 hours every day for R20,000 a month or work part-time as a book-keeper for R20,000 a month.
But either way, both jobs will probably be obsolete in the next decade or two.
Unfortunately, the government has a very fixed idea of what it is to be employed.
This is neatly laid out in the Labour Relations Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act, both of which are arguably also some of the biggest hindrances to job creation in SA.
As honourable as it is that the government is working towards ensuring that all South Africans are assured of “decent” employment, in 10 to 20 years’ time it will also be largely irrelevant.
On the eve of the fourth industrial revolution we need to be looking forwards, not backwards, to get the right answers.
Anyone who thinks the idea of a gig economy is new hasn’t driven past the scores of unemployed men waiting at a labour pick-up point hoping to sell their labour for the day.
If we are serious about designing policy and social interventions that will reduce unemployment, we have to completely change the way we understand the concept of a “job” and, with it, the skills, sectors and regulations that will provide people with employment.
Those concerned don’t even really seem to know what a job is, let alone how to create one